Category Archives: Kids

Mental illness, medication, and the elephant in the room

Mental illness has always been the elephant in whatever room you’re in. Many people know someone who suffers from it but are still uncomfortable talking about it. The words “crazy” and “wacko” are often still used to describe people with mental illness – not exactly conducive to open discussion and helping people admit that they are struggling. But it’s worse than that because other than perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, many mental illnesses are looked at as something that you can overcome if you just try hard enough.

People with depression are told that they should just not be so sad all the time and think about all the good things in their lives. People with anxiety should try to relax and not get so worked up about things. Many think that ADHD doesn’t even exist because everyone gets distracted now and again. Mental illness is seen as a weakness of character, not an actual illness. On the other hand, people with more physical ailments such as cancer or MS are always described as courageous and strong and are given as much support as they need. Nobody suggests that people who are deaf or blind should just work harder and concentrate more and then they’ll be fine.

Bell Let’s Talk day is a day in January every year when Bell Canada donates money for each social media post that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Since 2010, Bell has donated over $80 million to various mental health initiatives. I see hundreds of tweets on those days talking about mental illness, and it seems that it’s something that many people secretly (and not-so-secretly) battle with, or know someone who does. (I’ve also seen people who refuse to participate, thinking it’s a big ad campaign for Bell Canada. Maybe it is, but who cares? If they’re donating millions to charity and getting people to openly talk about mental health because of it, I’m happy to give them some free advertising.) You also see lots of Facebook posts and blog articles by and about people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses, discussing how they cope and how and where they get help. A lot of people feel empowered and courageous enough to “come out” and publicly admit and discuss their illness, and I think this is fantastic. At the end of January, everyone’s on board and it gives one hope that the stigma is finally on the way out.

The rest of the year is a different story. That’s not to say that everyone reverts back to “crazy people are just weak minded” but for many, the stigma comes back. And I’m sure many don’t even know it.

ADHDMy two kids were each diagnosed with ADHD around grade four (for posterity, Ryan’s currently in grade twelve and Nicky grade nine), and both have been taking daily medication since their diagnosis. The medications have changed over the years as well as the dosages, but both still take it every day. Gail and I are not embarrassed by this and neither are the boys; it’s just part of life for them. It’s never been a “family secret”, though I did confirm with them that they are OK with me explicitly making it public here. The medication helps them to be more focused and more able to tune out distractions. Nicky can also get “fidgety” and it helps with that as well. It doesn’t turn them into perfect children, nor do we expect it to. And it does not turn them into zombies, at least not any more than any other teenager with a smartphone.

Note that ADHD is a real condition and fMRI scans can show real physical differences between the ADHD brain and the “normal” brain. Nobody is saying that any kid who ever gets distracted has ADHD and needs medication, any more than anyone who ever gets sad about anything has depression and needs medication. The “disorder” part means that it happens far more often than in other people – often enough to negatively affect your day-to-day life.

Anyway, like I said, their ADHD and medication are not secret and so now and again the topic comes up in conversation with family members, friends, co-workers, and occasionally even strangers. When it does, I am amazed at how often people ask about the meds. Do they take the medication every day? Do they take it on weekends or over the summer when they’re not in school? Will they have to take it for the rest of their lives? I constantly wonder why people are so interested in my kids’ medication schedule.

Of course, they’re not interested in when they take it, they’re interested that they take it. I’m sure some are just curious but I frequently feel judged, as if they’re asking “You don’t give your children prescription drugs for such a mild condition, do you? And every day?!” I’ve even had people, including family members, directly suggest that maybe they shouldn’t be taking the medication.

In many cases, these are the same people who post supportive messages on Bell Let’s Talk day, the whole point of which is to end the stigma associated with mental illness. But suggesting that my kids stop taking their medication IS the stigma. You are suggesting that the medication is not necessary because they should be able to overcome their illness through sheer will. That’s just not how it works.

Gail and I are both insulin-dependent type 2 diabetics. Nobody has ever asked me if we take our insulin or other diabetes medications every day or on weekends, and nobody has ever suggested we try not taking it. Similarly, if you have migraines or chronic back pain, pain medication is a lifesaver and nobody who’s ever had either of these would suggest to someone else suffering with it that maybe they should skip their medication and try something else to cope with the pain. It seems that we all know that “Try distracting yourself so you don’t think about it!” is not going to work on a migraine, but some think that will work on depression.

I’ve seen images on Facebook talking about the number of children in the US diagnosed with ADHD and that half of them are on medication, as if that’s a source of shame. Think of the number of kids diagnosed with leukemia; 100% of them are on medication and nobody’s ashamed of that.

Of course I’m not saying that everyone with ADHD or depression should be on medication. I’m sure there are many people who have developed coping techniques for their illnesses and don’t need medication, but that’s just not possible for everyone. If you suggest to those people (or their parents) that maybe they don’t need it and maybe they should try not taking it, you are not helping. You are contributing to the belief that mental illnesses are not real illnesses and can be overcome by simply working harder. They can’t. So please stop.

My favourite picture of myself

This picture has been on the back of my bedroom door for almost a decade. Ryan drew it for me at his babysitter’s when he was 4 or 5. I believe the babysitter just told him “make a silly face” and this is what Ryan decided was a silly face. I absolutely love it.


There are a bunch of reasons why this is my favourite picture of myself. Obviously, the fact that my son made it for me makes it special. But it’s more than that.

It’s the goofy eyes, the curly hair, the tongue sticking out, the two-foot long neck. It’s the fact that he used a shiny silver marker but did the face in red. It’s the lowercase ‘r’ in his name and the fact that the ‘n’ looks like an ‘h’. It’s the backwards ‘s’ in silly and the misspelling. It’s the fact that he ran out of room writing ‘face’ and decided to finish the word by wrapping around to the left side and putting the ‘e’ there.

Everything about this picture is awesome and I smile every time I look at it.

Unclear on the concept

This is an actual conversation I had with Nicky (age 10) after school today.

Nicky: Dad, can I play on the computer?

Me: No. Remember during the last school year when we did what we called “screen-free weeks”? You and Ryan would go from Monday to Thursday during the week with no computer, no TV, no Nintendo, no iPod because otherwise that’s all you’d do. You’d never read, never play outside, never play board or card games, never play with any other toys, just video games and TV. Sometimes you’d even ignore homework. Once we started with the screen-free weeks, you found other things to occupy your time. For whatever reason, we’ve managed to get away from that recently, so you guys are spending too much time staring at computer or TV screens. So we’re going to start that up again. If you need the computer for school work that’s fine, but otherwise you’ll have to find something else to do.

Nicky: Ok.

<Five minutes later>

Nicky: Dad, can I watch a movie?

Lost one tree, gained another

Following are three short stories that seem quite unrelated, but they converge at the end in a wonderfully meaningful way. At least it’s meaningful for our family.

Purple-leaf sand cherryGail and I moved into our house in Waterdown in July of 1997 (the day before my 28th birthday), almost two years after we were married and two weeks before I started working at Sybase (where I still work). The next summer, we hired a landscaping designer to help us do something different with our front yard. We changed the shapes of some of the gardens and planted a bunch of new things including a euonymous bush, a standard pee gee hydrangea (which lasted about ten years before dying), a dwarf Japanese cedar that I loved (but it also died after only a year or two), and a purple-leaf sandcherry tree. The sandcherry wasn’t a sapling when we bought it – I don’t remember for sure but I have a feeling it was already 5-6 feet tall. It thrived in front of the house and we’ve loved the purple leaves and pink flowers ever since. But a couple of years ago we started to wonder if it was getting too big. Every year we had to trim off some branches and cut it back and eventually, the only branches left were huge and thick and not many actual leaves were growing on it. It was also maybe ten feet from the house, and we wondered if the roots could cause problems. By this point the top of the tree was up to the second-storey window, so it had grown quite a bit. This spring, it looked pretty sickly with mostly branches and very few leaves so we made the tough decision to take it down. Two weeks ago, Gail’s dad came down with his chain saw and we removed the tree.

In Ontario, public schools test all grade 4 students to see if they should be identified as “exceptional”, which includes things like autism, giftedness, speech impairments, as well as other physical or learning disabilities. We became familiar with this process when Ryan was identified as gifted three years ago. He continued at Allan A. Greenleaf public school (where he had been since kindergarten) for grade five, but we found he was “coasting” and not trying very hard. He just wasn’t that engaged. We decided to move him to a special class for gifted children (at a different school), and he’s been there for two years and doing pretty well.

Nicky just finished grade four at Greenleaf, and we received his test results about a month ago – he is also gifted. (Warning: proud daddy bragging ahead) In the Visual Comprehension test, the school VP said that Nicky’s score was in the 99.9th percentile “or even higher” across the entire Hamilton-Wentworth district school board. This means that on average, of every thousand kids that took the test, at most one of them scored higher than Nicky. (OK, bragging all done.) We talked to his teacher and the learning resource teacher, and they both thought the gifted class would be the best place for Nicky. We agreed, and requested that he be moved there. They offered him a spot and since Greenleaf doesn’t have a gifted class (which is why Ryan moved), Nicky will be attending Dundas Central public school in the fall. For the first time since 2003, we will have no children attending Greenleaf next year.

When Ryan started kindergarten at Greenleaf back in the fall of 2003, Gail decided she wanted to know more about the school and the community so she went out to a couple of school council meetings. You don’t need to join the council to attend the meetings so she didn’t actually join, just observed. The next year, she decided to join the council and at the first meeting agreed to be “co-chair”. The school had had co-chairs for several years and it seemed to be working fine, so they continued having two. She was co-chair the next year as well, and then in the third year, the guy who had been the other co-chair left because his kids had all moved on to high school. Someone else stepped up as co-chair for one year but after that Gail just did it herself, and has ever since. This past year was the eighth year that Gail has been chair or co-chair of the school council at Greenleaf. She knows all the teachers and staff on a first-name basis and is involved in just about every fundraiser and event that the school puts on.

The school has “free family movie night” once a month, where kids and their families and friends can come to the school on a Friday night and watch a movie. The school council sells popcorn and drinks and it’s a pretty popular event. That was Gail’s brainchild. Every February, the school holds a spaghetti dinner and silent auction, which is very popular and raises thousands of dollars for the school. Gail helped create that as well and until this past year when she was busy with her own studies, she co-ordinated the event every year. Make no mistake, Gail had lots of help from other parents and members of the council, and I’ve been volun-told myself on numerous occasions when she needed help, but nobody has done more for the Greenleaf community over the past eight years than Gail has. All the teachers love her, and if I had a nickel for every time one of them told me how great she was or how lucky I was, I’d be a wealthy man indeed.

In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you those stories to tell you this one.

On the second-last day of school this year, the librarian at Greenleaf (Nirogi) called Gail and asked her if she would come to the final assembly of the year the next morning. Gail knew that something was up, since parents don’t usually go to the end-of-school assembly. But we also knew that this would be the last day we had kids at Greenleaf, and they would likely be doing something to say goodbye to Gail. We were right. They did a little thing for each of the five or six teachers that were leaving, and then they brought Gail up. A grade eight girl who has been involved with the student council also got up and read some stuff about how much Gail has done for the school, how much they appreciate everything she’s done, and how the school won’t be the same without her. After much applause from the teachers and students, Gail got up and said a few unscripted thank-yous through tears.

But the best part is that in Gail’s honour, the school will be planting a purple-leaf sandcherry tree behind the school in the fall. Nirogi knew how much we like the sandcherry in front of our house, so that’s what she picked to plant for Gail. She didn’t even know that we had had to take ours down.

As much as we’re excited about the new opportunities awaiting Nicky next year in his new school, we’re very sad that we’re leaving the Greenleaf community. But the fact that for the next however-many years there will be a tree at the school that was planted for Gail is supremely cool. We may not have kids at the school anymore, and I don’t know if there’ll be a plaque or anything near the tree with her name on it, but we’ll know. And every now and again we’ll stop in at the school for no other reason than to see Gail’s tree.

Cubs, mushrooms, and a decimetre

This past Saturday was JOTT, or Jamboree On The Trail, a day where all members of Scouts, of any age, around the world are encouraged to go for a hike. The 3rd Waterdown group that my kids (and wife) are part of does this every year. They generally arrange things so that all the groups – Beavers (ages 5-7), Cubs (8-10), Scouts (11-14), Venturers (14-17), and Rovers (18+) all hike different trails that end up at the same place at the same time for a barbecue. The Venturers start early and hike 10-15 km, the Scouts a little later and a little shorter, the Cubs shorter still, and the Beavers start last and hike 2-3 km. Nicky is a third-year Cub while Ryan is a third-year Scout, and Gail is a Cub leader. Gail was busy this past weekend so I took her place and hiked with the Cubs.

Climbing the BruceWe walked along part of the Bruce Trail from northern Burlington to Camp Manitou, a Scout camp south of Campbellville. We went through forests and meadows and farmers’ fields and up and down steep hills and across wooden and metal bridges and boardwalks over swampy areas and rivers, and even along residential streets through the little town of Kilbride. We saw no fauna other than a few birds, but lots of flora including giant mushrooms eight inches across, trees growing on top of huge rocks, ferns, and thousands of pink and white trilliums.

I made a map of the trail we covered. Of course, the straight lines through the forests are very rough approximations, since you can’t see the path on the map. I can assure you that the paths through the forests were not straight for very long, so the 3.67 miles (5.9 km) that Google Maps reports is rather low.

Of course, when you have thirty or so 8-10 year olds and no TV or video games, you end up with some interesting conversations. Here are a couple that I overheard snippets of and one that I was involved in:

Welcome to Ontario.A: [Talking about digging a hole with a chainsaw] Then I sit on the chainsaw and dig down.
B: Then you’d go all the way to China.
A: You know what? China isn’t on the other side of the world.
C: You couldn’t do that anyway. This earth has a core in the middle. If you get too close to the core, you’d die. You’d disintegrate.

A: Do you believe in God?
B: Do you?
A: No. You don’t have to, you know. It’s a person’s choice whether they want to.
B: So if God didn’t make the world, then who did?
A: I dunno.

A: How long would it take to get to the moon?
Me: I think it took the astronauts about three days to get there.
A: But in space time, it only took them, like, two minutes. Time goes slower in space.
Me: Well, the astronauts were going pretty fast, but not fast enough to slow down time for them.
[At this point, I’m impressed that he has even the most vague knowledge of relativity. Then…]
A: I knew a guy who could stack cups, like, almost the speed of light. Like, a decimetre.
Me: Ummm…
A: How fast is a decimetre?
Me: Ummm…

[A decimetre is a seldom-used measurement of length equal to one-tenth of a metre, or ten centimetres. This is about four inches.]

When it was all said and done, the GPS said we walked about 9.8 km in 3hrs 15 minutes. The Scouts walked a little further, about 10.3 km. Everything worked out really well at the end of the trail – the hot dogs were ready when we got there, and there were lots of apples and oranges and watermelon and of course watery Kool-aid (I believe that is a Scouting requirement). All the different groups arrived within about half an hour of each other, with no missing kids and no injuries. It was also the first JOTT in at least a couple of years with no rain; actually the weather was perfect. I hope the other Scouts from around the world who participated had as great a day as we did.

These kids today and their social acceptance

When I was a kid, I hated getting my hair cut. Hated it. My mom or dad would say “Graeme, get your shoes on” and I’d ask “where are we going?” and one of my least favourite answers was “you need a haircut”. Even going to the dentist wasn’t as bad. Was this because I was particular about how my hair looked, and the barbers we went to didn’t do a good enough job? No, I didn’t generally care what it looked like. Was it an unpleasant place? Did the barber smell bad? I don’t think so, but I actually don’t remember where we went the times when my mom didn’t do it herself. It was because of school. Whenever I got a haircut, the kids at school would make fun of me, and I hated it.

You may be surprised to learn that despite the mountain of manly musculature you see before you today, I was bullied a lot as a kid. (I’ll just pause a minute here while you get your laughter under control. Dum de dum de dum… all better now? Great.) I wasn’t really short, but in the lower half of the class height-wise. I was also pretty scrawny and not exactly a star on the sports field. This was not helped by the fact that I did grades one and two in the same year and so was a year younger than everyone else. I don’t remember being beaten up all that often, it was more verbal bullying, i.e. being made fun of. Whenever I got my hair cut, there were always a few kids at school the next day pointing and saying “Ha ha! You got a haircut!” The brilliant comeback “So?” never occurred to me, nor did the concept of simply not giving a shit, so I just put up with the teasing, silently cursing my parents for not letting me grow my hair to the floor.

I don't know who this girl is. But she's cute.I don’t imagine I was unique in having to deal with this. I was lucky enough to never wear braces and I didn’t wear glasses until high school, but I knew kids who had one or the other (or even worse, both) and they went through endless teasing as well. It was not unusual at all to hear “brace face” or “metal mouth” or “four eyes” or other names thrown about. I remember going to school and seeing a friend wearing glasses or braces for the first time and feeling sorry for them – not because of the problems with their eyes or teeth, but because it meant years of teasing were about to begin. Gail got her glasses in grade two, and endured years of it.

Eventually my classmates and I matured to the point where the teasing stopped. When I got glasses in grade ten, I don’t remember being called names or being made fun of at all. For the next fifteen years or so, that kind of teasing was a thing of the past. It was something I just didn’t think about. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own who started school that I thought about it again. I almost apologized to Ryan when we took him to get a haircut for the first time after he started kindergarten because of the teasing he’d have to go through at school. The next day I asked him about it, and he had no idea what I was talking about. Being made fun of because of a haircut? Why? I was very glad to hear that this wasn’t an issue, at least in his class.

A little while later, Ryan said that a girl in his class came to school with glasses for the first time. Again I asked if people made fun of her, partially to make sure that Ryan wasn’t one of them, and again he was puzzled. “No,” he said, “most people didn’t say anything, and some just said they looked good on her.” The further he got in school, the more I found that this was the norm for them – people get haircuts all the time, some have to wear glasses or braces, and that’s just how it is. Nobody is made fun of because of it, and nobody dreads going to school because of it. Ryan got his glasses back in 2008, just having finished grade 4. I remember being at the optometrist and Ryan didn’t even blink when the doctor told him he needed glasses. He didn’t get the glasses until something like the third week of June, so we didn’t bother making him wear them to school for the last week, but he didn’t care either way.

The original inspiration for this article is that this past week, Ryan had a (fixed) retainer put in, and will be getting braces in a few months. We’ve known this has been coming for a couple of years, and Ryan has never shown any unhappiness or concern about it at all. In fact while I can’t say he’s exactly excited, it’s a bit of a novelty to him right now, and he’s curious about how it will work. Two days after Ryan got his retainer, I took Nicky to the optometrist for his annual eye exam, and now he needs glasses too. Similarly, his reaction was a nonchalant “Oh. Cool.”

I realize that this is quite a different thing, but I hope that other forms of verbal bullying and discrimination similarly vanish over the years. Right now, I could tell my kids “Not long before I was born, black people had to use different entrances in schools and sit at the back of the bus while the white people sat at the front!” and they’d be amazed. They’d ask me why that was the case, and I wouldn’t be able to give them a compelling answer, or even one that makes any sense at all. I envision my kids talking to their kids in a few decades, telling them “When I was a kid, gay people weren’t allowed to get married!”, and their kids being amazed. They’d ask why, and my boys would have to give the same “That’s just the way it was back then” non-answer.

Of course, kids are still kids. The bullying is still there, but it’s a little different now: “Ha ha! Alexis’ dad only has an iPhone 3, and Matthew’s mom still uses a Blackberry! LOSERS!”